My Worst Musical Performance Ever (Updated)

(Note: I left an left out an important part of this story, which I have now added.)

I was in seventh grade. Must have been about 12 years old. I had been playing the piano since age 6, and sometime in middle school I started accompanying the concert choir. Usually this task was divided among three or four different players; no one had more than one or two pieces to play. That year, my piece was a silly word play about various composers like Bach and Liszt, an attempt to elevate people by stooping to their level. It doesn’t work.

I don’t remember what happened exactly, but in the middle of this stupid piece, I completely fell apart, lost my place, stopped playing—leaving the chorus to trudge along a cappella. I was mortified. What could be worse? The problem with performance etiquette these days is that both performers and audience are supposed to pretend that everything is okay, even if it isn’t. If you’re listening to a performance that sucks, you still have to clap at the end, and if you’re a performer who’s laying an egg, you still have to stand up and take a bow. I found this to be the most humiliating part of all, having to stand up and take a bow after playing so badly that even the local high school band director or even a church organist would have known there were mistakes. I would rather have crawled into the piano.

Then my father pulled out a bloody camera. Right there from the front of the auditorium, I gestured defiantly and yelled, “Put that down!” He was furious with me. Strangely, the applause continued as if my unusual outburst had never happened. My father hasn’t taken a picture of me since that night. I understand why he was annoyed, but I don’t think he realizes, either, how I felt: He was about to make a record of the worst musical moment of my life.

That was a rough night, but it only got worse the next day. My section was standing outside the English classroom, waiting for the previous group to finish so that we could go in. One of the girls in my section verbally attacked me. “Thanks a lot. You ruined our concert.” I was too young at the time to realize that this was total b.s. for  a number of reasons. First of all, one piece doesn’t ruin a whole concert. Secondly, this little brat didn’t even play the piano. She couldn’t have done my job if she had all the desire in the world, but that never crossed my mind. So I was affected deeply by this. I felt like someone punched me in the gut. I have since learned that such behavior is often a factor of jealousy. A quick glance at the work of certain music critics lends credence to this theory. Not only that, I have also discovered that the greater a musician a person is, the more generous he or she is in the evaluation of another’s work.

There is a certain vulnerability in making music. It takes place in time; the musician cannot fix, adjust, or reconsider in the manner that a painter can, for instance. Doubtless painters have challenges that musicians don’t; in any case, this is the challenge that musicians have. (I know of one surgeon who claims that musicians have greater time-related pressures than he does.) I have lost track of the number of times I came within a fingernail of completely falling apart. And yet, sometimes it is those same “hang ten” kinds of performances that are enflamed with the fire of inspiration. It’s the kind of trade-off that Babe Ruth, who held records both for home runs and strike outs, would gravitate to.

But for a long time, I learned the wrong lesson from this worst performance, and I developed performance anxiety. We all have our own battles, and this has been one of mine. The truth of the matter is that too much anxiety chokes off musicianship, and it’s precisely because the performer is concerned about many things, but not about the most important thing. I get nervous when I worry about what people will think, but when I play for the love of music, that is when the great performances happen. In the era of Like buttons on Facebook, this task only becomes more difficult, but if music is to survive this Technological Dark Age (we have many gadgets but few books) that we are in, we musicians must resist what is essentially egotism and dedicate ourselves to the elucidation of the ideas expressed by our art. With any other approach we are simply letting the inmates run the asylum.

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